LET­TERS FROM KARGIL

Doc­u­ments re­cov­ered from the bod­ies of en­emy sol­diers killed at Kargil tell the story of a Pak­istani mil­i­tary misadventu­re and the fail­ure of In­dian in­tel­li­gence two decades ago

India Today - - CONTENTS - Cover by NILANJAN DAS, Im­age source: IN­DIAN ARMY

Clas­si­fied pa­pers re­cov­ered from sol­diers’ bod­ies tell the tale of an en­emy hid­den in plain sight

The let­ter, dated May 15, 1999, bore the crest of two crossed swords un­der a burn­ing sun. Draped around the swords was a sash with words from a cou­plet by Per­sian poet Saadi Shi­razi: Pir sho biyamooz (grow old learn­ing).

‘My dear Saeed Ahmed,’ Ma­jor Gen­eral Javaid Afzal Khan, com­man­dant of the Pak­istan Army’s Com­mand and Staff Col­lege in Quetta whose in­signia this was, wrote to the young Ma­jor from the 60 Baloch Reg­i­ment in that let­ter. ‘I fe­lic­i­tate you on your se­lec­tion for the 2000 Staff Course, which is a re­flec­tion of your ded­i­ca­tion to ser­vice and higher stand­ing in the army. We are look­ing for­ward to wel­com­ing you and hope that your stay will both be pro­fes­sion­ally re­ward­ing and so­cially en­joy­able.’ Na­gra had been part of the 12th bat­tal­ion of the North­ern Light In­fantry (12 NLI), one of the five bat­tal­ions the Pak­istan army sent nearly 10 kilo­me­tres deep into In­dian ter­ri­tory in the Kargil district of Jammu and Kash­mir.

The let­ter—sent to Na­gra’s reg­i­ment in Khar­ian in Pun­jab prov­ince—was among the wealth of doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence the In­dian Army re­cov­ered when the fight­ing stopped on July 26, 1999. Na­gra was among those who had man­aged to es­cape. He went on to rise in ser­vice and is cur­rently In­spec­tor Gen­eral of the Fron­tier Corps in the South Balochis­tan re­gion. But his com­rades then were not as lucky.

When they went to re­claim the heights, sol­diers of the In­dian Army found bod­ies of over 200 Pak­istani sol­diers lodged in bunkers or con­torted in shal­low trenches, hit prob­a­bly by ar­tillery fire from In­dian how­itzers. As they went through the pock­ets and ruck­sacks of the dead fight­ers, the men of the In­dian Army re­cov­ered doc­u­ments that helped them paint a pro­file of the un­seen en­emy who had sat hid­den in stone san­gars over­look­ing Na­tional High­way 1A, that con­nects Kash­mir val­ley to Jammu and the rest of In­dia.

All these years, this ev­i­dence had been sit­ting locked in the steel cab­i­nets of Govern­ment of In­dia of­fices, many in the ‘Not to go out’ or NGO sec­tion. These doc­u­ments are part of the clas­si­fied sec­tion of the Kargil Re­view Com­mit­tee or KRC that ex­tracted lessons for In­dia’s na­tional se­cu­rity from the war.

In­dia to­day was able to ac­cess copies of some of these pa­pers the army gath­ered 20 years ago. There were Pak­istan Army pay-books, pho­to­graphs of wives and chil­dren, un­posted let­ters to fam­i­lies, per­sonal wal­lets, mess bills, hand­ing over and tak­ing over of mess prop­erty, se­cret lists of code words to be used in com­mu­ni­ca­tions, pass­words, inch maps, task tables of mor­tar and ar­tillery units, money or­der forms and per­sonal di­aries. They re­vealed a peo­ple who, in the words of an In­dian Army of­fi­cer from a covert unit which scaled the heights, “just like us”. Many of these let­ters, re­pro­duced here for the first time, of­fer a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the life of a doomed gar­ri­son in what the Pak­istan Army code-named Op­er­a­tion Koh-ePaima (Call of the Moun­tains) or Op KP.

In an un­dated let­ter found on the body of Naik Ghu­lam Ab­bas of the 8 NLI, his rel­a­tive Hafiz Ab­dul Qadir Aadil, a school teacher in Dudhniyal town in the Nee­lam Val­ley of Pak­istan-oc­cu­pied Kash­mir, re­flected great con­cern over the fate of his sol­dier rel­a­tive who had gone missing for sev­eral months. The wish du­aein khair (prayers for well be­ing) was used seven times in the 400-word let­ter. His fam­ily had re­ceived no let­ters from Ab­bas since Jan­uary 1999. “We got five of your let­ters to­gether…all of them had been writ­ten be­fore Jan­uary”. Aadil caught on to a stray ref­er­ence from one of them where Ab­bas men­tioned “This year, I am at the high­est point”, pos­si­bly a ref­er­ence to his be­ing atop the 4,660-me­tre-high Tiger Hill in Kargil. The list of Pak­istan’s Kargil war dead men­tions Ab­bas’s death in ‘en­emy ac­tion’ in the Hamzi­gund sub-sec­tor of PoK’s Gil­git district. But the date of his death—July 3—sug­gests he died in the fe­ro­cious bat­tle for Tiger Hill, which con­cluded with a re­cap­ture of the peak by the In­dian Army. His re­treat­ing com­rades most likely left be­hind Ab­bas’s body.

The ‘Mu­jahideen’ hoax

It all be­gan on May 3, when two shep­herds at Kargil re­ported the pres­ence of in­trud­ers and the In­dian Army sent foot pa­trols to in­ves­ti­gate. This was a year af­ter both In­dia and Pak­istan had tested nu­clear weapons, and just three months af­ter Prime Min­is­ter Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee had em­barked on his his­toric bus jour­ney to La­hore to meet his coun­ter­part Nawaz Sharif. No two nu­cle­ar­armed states had ever gone to war since the first atomic

bomb had been tested and used in 1945. It was pos­si­bly some­thing the bright and am­bi­tious Pak­istan Army chief Gen­eral Pervez Mushar­raf fac­tored in as he launched Op KP soon af­ter tak­ing over in Oc­to­ber 1998. Mushar­raf, a Spe­cial Ser­vices Group (SSG) com­mando, had ‘lit­er­ally wept’ when he heard of the Pak­istan Army’s hu­mil­i­at­ing sur­ren­der at Dhaka on De­cem­ber 16, 1971. He brought out, dusted and ac­ti­vated a plan that had been lan­guish­ing in Pak­istan’s Gen­eral Head­quar­ters for sev­eral years and which Mushar­raf knew of be­cause he had once been Di­rec­tor Gen­eral Mil­i­tary Op­er­a­tions (DGMO).

Op KP’s open­ing gam­bit called for the Pak­istan army cap­tur­ing the so-called win­ter-va­cated posts the In­dian army held along the Line of Con­trol (LoC). The LoC—the point where the two armies were when cease­fire was de­clared on De­cem­ber 17, 1971—is an ir­reg­u­lar 740-km stretch run­ning from south to north. North of Gurez, it bends sharply to the right to­wards Ladakh. NH1A fol­lows the LoC, link­ing Sri­na­gar with Leh, the cap­i­tal of Ladakh district, a des­o­late, un­in­hab­ited desert waste­land of ser­rated, knife-edge ridges pierc­ing clear blue skies. The al­ti­tudes along the LoC are be­tween 12,000 and 18,000 feet. Heavy snow­fall along the LoC—that leads to pile-ups 10-40 feet deep—made it dif­fi­cult for the In­dian Army to over­win­ter their posts. They would va­cate these posts in Oc­to­ber and re­turn with the spring thaw in May. Op KP was a plan to oc­cupy those posts us­ing the NLI, a para­mil­i­tary force of­fi­cered by the Pak­istan Army and whose men were pri­mar­ily re­cruited from the North­ern Ar­eas (now re­named Gil­git-Baltistan). Not only did the NLI bat­tal­ions have all the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of a reg­u­lar in­fantry bat­tal­ion, but they were also trained in com­mando op­er­a­tions and snow war­fare, reg­u­larly send­ing vol­un­teers to the elite SSG. It was their role as tena­cious de­fend­ers the Pak­istan Army drew on.

As the KRC re­counts, the de­cep­tion lay in pro­ject­ing NLI in­trud­ers as mu­jahideen. They ‘dressed’ like mu­jahideen, in sal­war-kameez. Lead­ers of mil­i­tary or­gan­i­sa­tions and oth­ers in Pak­istan is­sued state­ments prais­ing the ‘suc­cesses’ of ‘Kash­miri free­dom-fight­ers’. “In the ini­tial weeks of May, we thought we were fight­ing mu­jahideen,” ad­mits Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Chan­dra Shekhar, then vice chief of army staff. “The ra­dio traf­fic we in­ter­cepted was in Pashto, Balti and other lo­cal lan­guages.”

The In­dian Army was clearly con­di­tioned by the ex­pe­ri­ence of the decade-long in­sur­gency in Kash­mir where the Pak­istani deep state de­ployed the skills, ex­per­tise and ordnance it had in run­ning the Afghan war be­tween 1980 and 1988. Nor did our army know of the com­po­si­tion of the in­trud­ing force. At a press brief­ing on May 19, 1999, Lt Gen­eral V.S. Bud­hwar, GOC, 15 Corps, said that “al­though the in­trud­ers are well-armed and ap­pear to be on al­most sui­ci­dal mis­sion”, he still had no proof that they

were Tal­iban and that there were reg­u­lars among them.

By early June, it had be­come clear that this was a broad in­cur­sion along a shal­low front. On June 6, the army launched its ma­jor of­fen­sive in Kargil and re­cap­tured two key po­si­tions in Bata­lik even as the re­al­i­sa­tion of a colos­sal in­tel­li­gence fail­ure be­gan to hit home. “They were sit­ting all across the wa­ter­shed…,” says one Kargil vet­eran re­count­ing in dis­be­lief. “How did we not no­tice an en­tire Pak­istani brigade strung across the wa­ter­shed?”

On June 11, the then for­eign min­is­ter, Jaswant Singh, re­leased two sat-phone con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Mushar­raf and his deputy, Lt Gen. Mo­hammed Aziz, in Rawalpindi. In these con­ver­sa­tions on May 26 and May 29 that In­dian in­tel­li­gence agen­cies in­ter­cepted, Mushar­raf is heard sug­gest­ing that the endgame was to al­ter the LoC.

How­ever, the fe­ro­cious In­dian counter-as­sault, which gath­ered steam in June, took Mushar­raf and his gen­er­als by sur­prise. Two di­vi­sions of over 30,000 sol­diers were thrown in to re­claim the heights. IAF fighter jets dropped laser-guided bombs on hill tops, In­dian ar­tillery guns on the val­ley floors fired tens of thou­sands of rounds, smash­ing open the stone san­gars the ‘mu­jahideen’ had erected, and in­fantry units climbed up near-ver­ti­cal cliff faces to en­gage in bloody hand-to-hand com­bat.

The big­gest myth that was busted early on in the bat­tle was that the army was fac­ing Kash­miri mil­i­tants. Some­thing about the dogged re­sis­tance our sol­diers faced as they made the gru­elling climbs up the heights told them oth­er­wise. Mu­jahideen did not fight pitched de­fence bat­tles. They did not launch counter-at­tacks. They did not lay mines. And they cer­tainly did not use ar­tillery, sur­face-to-air mis­siles, heavy ma­chine guns and he­li­copters.

“The Pak­istan Army’s mu­jahideen façade suc­ceeded till mid-June 1999 be­cause there were no in­tel­li­gence re­ports on the army’s in­volve­ment be­fore the war and all in­tel­li­gence agen­cies con­tin­ued to back their ear­lier re­ports fo­cus­ing on mu­jahideen ter­ror­ist camps and con­cen­tra­tions in PoK. The Pak­istani elec­tronic de­cep­tion plan for con­vey­ing this dis­in­for­ma­tion was ef­fec­tive,” says then army chief, Gen. V.P. Ma­lik.

“Our in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, even for­ward troops, swal­lowed it hook, line and sinker. My ar­gu­ments that mu­jahideen do not hold ground or have ar­tillery and he­li­copter sup­port, could not con­vince the Cabi­net Com­mit­tee on Se­cu­rity (CCS). This was per­haps one of the fac­tors why the CCS did not of­fi­cially de­clare the Kargil con­flict a ‘war’ and de­nied us per­mis­sion to cross the LoC,” he says. It was af­ter the cap­ture of Tolol­ing (on June 13) that proof of the Pak­istan Army’s in­volve­ment poured in. It was not only reg­u­lar army weapons and equip­ment but sol­diers’ pay books, move­ment or­ders and sig­nal code books.

The army re­cov­ered sev­eral per­sonal di­aries main­tained by Pak­istani of­fi­cers. Among them was one by Lt Mo­ham­mad Maaz Ul­lah Khan Sum­bal of 5 NLI. The pocket diary was a com­pli­men­tary copy is­sued by Mari Gas—an en­ergy com­pany owned by the mil­i­tary vet­eran-run Fauji Foun­da­tion. The lieu­tenant, a res­i­dent of the de­fence hous­ing so­ci­ety in La­hore Can­ton­ment, recorded his de­ploy­ment in Kargil some­time in Jan­uary 31, the date the diary was sent to him along with a pack of let­ters and Eid cards from home. The heli-mis­sion was a flight of two ‘Lama’ light he­li­copters and one Mi-17 medium-lift he­li­copter. Sum­bal main­tained the diary un­til mid-June when he frac­tured his left arm dur­ing a shelling of his post by In­dian ar­tillery. He was evac­u­ated to Pak­istan’s Pun­jab prov­ince.

In the diary he left be­hind, the young of­fi­cer re­counts his trek up into Kargil, bathing at mi­nus 22 de­grees at 19,000 feet—‘ter­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence’—cel­e­brat­ing his 27th birth­day at Hamzi­gund. On June 15, Sum­bal met a fel­low NLI of­fi­cer who had cap­tured IAF pi­lot Flt Lt Nachiketa, whose MiG-27 crashed fol­low­ing an en­gine flame-out in Bata­lik. On June 30, the 18th day of his de­ploy­ment in the sec­tor, Sum­bal re­counted the fury of In­dian ar­tillery fire—shell splin­ters ripped the tent he was in.

Op KP was sup­posed to have been a stealthy takeover of the heights, but it left be­hind an enor­mous pa­per trail. An enor­mous amount were mun­dane doc­u­ments fa­mil­iar to both armies with a com­mon colo­nial ori­gin. When ex­am­ined care­fully, they sug­gest clues that had been missed.

Take, for in­stance, the Hand­ing / Tak­ing Over pa­pers of Of­fi­cers Mess Prop­erty cap­tured from the Bata­lik sec­tor—where 5NLI was in com­bat. The bat­tal­ion va­cated its base on the Pak­istan side of the LoC and then moved for­ward into In­dian ter­ri­tory at Bata­lik. In­dian in­tel­li­gence com­pletely failed to de­tect this move.

A hand­ful of other doc­u­ments re­cov­ered sug­gest the de­tailed plan­ning for op­er­a­tional se­crecy for Op KP. A se­cret list of code words used by the Pak­istan Army for the month of May 1999 was also re­cov­ered by In­dian troops from the Kak­sar area of Kargil. They in­cluded num­bers for what to call ‘en­emy po­si­tions’. Kargil, for in­stance, was 713; Mashkoh 812 and Zo­jila 101.

An In­ter Of­fice Note (ION), sent out from the 80 In­fantry Brigade on May 31, laid down the pro­to­col for com­mu­ni­ca­tion se­cu­rity. The NLI units were to use only field tele­phones and not high fre­quency ra­dio sets. Mil­i­tary an­a­lysts point out how the use of ra­dio sets is es­chewed by de­fen­sive and dug-in for­ma­tions since they tend to give away their po­si­tions. In the event land­line con­nec­tions snapped, the ION signed by Cap­tain Ali Ul Hass­nain ad­vises units to con­tact their bat­tal­ion head­quar­ters on PK-786 high-fre­quency ra­dio wireless sets.

And, fi­nally, among the re­cov­er­ies were copies of a

Pak­istani map with the LoC printed on it as per the mu­tu­ally rat­i­fied mo­saics in New Delhi on Au­gust 29, 1972. The LoC was re­pro­duced on two sets of maps pre­pared by each side, each set con­sist­ing of 27 map sheets formed into 19 mo­saics. It gave the lie to ini­tial claims by the Pak­istan Army that they were op­er­at­ing on their side of the LoC. And when, by July 5, Nawaz Sharif an­nounced his army’s with­drawal from the Kargil heights af­ter his meet­ing with US pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, the Pak­istan Army re­fused to ac­cept the bod­ies of its NLI sol­diers. They lay aban­doned in shal­low trenches, still clothed in mil­i­tary is­sue striped khaki sweaters. It was left to the In­dian Army to per­form their last rites as per Is­lamic cus­tom—bathing and shroud­ing the body in white cloth and read­ing out the Salat al-Janazah or the fi­nal prayer for the de­ceased, and bury­ing them with their heads fac­ing Mecca. The Pak­istan Army made an ex­cep­tion for only five bod­ies, in­clud­ing that of Cap­tain Karnal Sher of the 12 NLI, killed in ac­tion in Kargil’s Drass re­gion and posthu­mously awarded the Nis­han-e-Haider, Pak­istan’s high­est mil­i­tary award.

What the pa­pers said

On July 24, two days be­fore Vi­jay Di­vas, the govern­ment set up the Kargil Re­view Com­mit­tee chaired by vet­eran strate­gic an­a­lyst K. Subrah­manyam and in­clud­ing Lt Gen­eral K.K. Hazari, B.G. Vergh­ese and Satish Chan­dra, Sec­re­tary, Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil Sec­re­tariat (see in­ter­view). The hun­dreds of in­ter­views they con­ducted with the key per­son­nel in the de­ci­sion-mak­ing chain were re­pro­duced in their re­port to the govern­ment in De­cem­ber 1999. With Pak­istan in de­nial, among the crit­i­cal pieces of ev­i­dence they re­lied on to re­con­struct events as they oc­curred on the en­emy side were the doc­u­ments re­cov­ered by the In­dian Army. To the com­mit­tee mem­bers, they of­fered a fas­ci­nat­ing first-hand ac­count of a Pak­istani ven­ture doomed to fail from the start. One, which the young Pak­istani of­fi­cers and sol­diers de­ployed in the

theatre had no inkling about.

The in­tru­sion in­volved the use of a rel­a­tively limited num­ber of men (1,700 or so) across a re­stricted front, of much less than 100 km to a depth of only 5-9 km. It was not enough to hold ter­ri­tory. Nor would the in­fra­struc­ture avail­able on the Pak­istani side of the LoC and the lim­i­ta­tions im­posed by ter­rain and weather al­low for large-size op­er­a­tions to go through the un­held gaps.

Among the crit­i­cal ac­counts is the one emerg­ing from the diary of Cap­tain Hussain Ah­mad of the 12 NLI in the Mashkoh sec­tor. The the 12 NLI crossed the LoC in Fe­bru­ary 1999, los­ing 11 men and a se­poy in two avalanches that struck these camps on Fe­bu­rary 25 and March 25. There is ref­er­ence to “ter­ri­ble thirst”, liv­ing in igloos (snow tents) and to at least eight In­dian air re­con­nais­sance mis­sions along the Mashkoh Val­ley which failed to de­tect them. The diary is punc­tu­ated with en­tries about bliz­zards and prayers for sal­va­tion. A not­ing on April 12 reads: “The weather cru­ellest, harsh­est and the most nasty. Dis­ap­pointed to the low­est ebb of hope and courage. No mercy from Al­lah Almighty re­ceived de­spite five days’ rig­or­ous treat­ment. Prayers. Cry in the desert.” The weather im­proved three days later when an In­dian re­con­nais­sance he­li­copter again ap­peared over­head.

And then comes the clincher. The ar­chi­tect of Op KP, Gen Mushar­raf him­self, vis­its the sec­tor on March 28. De­scrib­ing the gam­bit as “a re­ply to (In­dia’s) Si­achen in­va­sion of 1984”, he hands out Rs 8,000 for sweets to be dis­trib­uted amongst the 12 NLI mu­jahids.

It was only in 2006, while re­leas­ing his mem­oir, In the Line of Fire, that Mushar­raf pub­licly ac­knowl­edged the role of his army and claimed vic­tory at Kargil. In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view in July 2004, Nawaz Sharif told in­dia to­day that “our sol­diers killed in Kargil were more than the com­bined ca­su­al­ties of the 1965 and 1971 wars. There is no of­fi­cial state­ment, some say 2,700, and oth­ers say it was more”. Sharif, then in ex­ile in Saudi Ara­bia, promised to hold an in­quiry if he re­turned to power. He didn’t. But, in Novem­ber 2010, two years af­ter Mushar­raf fled to Lon­don in self-im­posed ex­ile, the Pak­istan Army up­loaded a list of 453 of­fi­cers and men who had died in Op KP. This would be 11 years af­ter the misadventu­re ended in in­ter­na­tional ig­nominy and mil­i­tary de­feat.

This July 26, In­dia ob­serves Vi­jay Di­vas, the 20th an­niver­sary of its last war with Pak­istan where it lost 474 of­fi­cers and men. There is a fa­mil­iar thread run­ning through an un­de­clared war that has sim­mered on since 1947—from Jammu and Kash­mir, through the three wars, to Kargil, Mum­bai 26/11, Pathankot and Uri 2016 and Pul­wama now. The Stan­dard Op­er­at­ing Pro­ce­dure or SOP is like the one a Nixon-era po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant pre­scribed for politi­cians and cap­tured spooks alike: “Ad­mit noth­ing. Deny ev­ery­thing. Make counter-ac­cu­sa­tions.”

This SOP ex­plains the nearly two-month cor­don by the Pak­istan Army around a Jaish-e-Mo­ham­mad ter­ror train­ing camp IAF fighter jets hit on Fe­bru­ary 26 this year. The camp, at Juba Top in Balakot, was thrown open to a care­fully con­ducted tour by the Pak­istan Army on April 10. Jour­nal­ists and for­eign mil­i­tary at­taches were taken around a madrassa with young chil­dren in it, but not to other parts of the camp where JeM cadre and their train­ers were housed. (In­dian in­tel­li­gence knew of the madrassa and IAF jets were in­structed to avoid bomb­ing it). ‘Deny ev­ery­thing’ also ex­plains the si­lence around the fate of the ‘sec­ond IAF pi­lot’ who the Pak­istan army spokesper­son and later Prime Min­is­ter Im­ran Khan claimed had been cap­tured on Fe­bru­ary 27. (In­dia be­lieves he came from a downed PAF F-16.) It took Pak­istan 11 years to own up to their Kargil war dead. One won­ders how long it will take to ad­mit to the events at Balakot. Un­like Saadi’s cou­plet, it seems the Pak­istan Army will grow old without learn­ing any­thing.

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